Judging by the prevalence of advice books on the best-seller lists, a great many of us believe there’s a formula for success in almost every endeavor, and that we can learn it from life’s winners—sports heroes, self-made billionaires, box-office stars, famous lovers. In one way, it makes sense: since they’ve done it (whatever it may be), they ought to be able to say how.
Not really. Almost every advice guide comes down to the same few principles—work hard, believe in yourself, work to your strengths, calculate your risks, know your competition, keep your promises, and so on. In every realm, legions follow exactly the same path as the victors, with results that fall markedly short of victory. What most of them lack is the victors’ luck, a quality that can’t be turned into a self-help bullet-point or converted into an inspiring affirmation.
People have begun writing me for online dating advice, which is unsurprising, I suppose, since I’ve written quite a few times on the topic. Since it’s in my nature to have an opinion on most subjects, I’m only too happy to reply. But my reputation with these correspondents has risen very high lately, because in the world of online dating, I’ve won the gold medal: I’m madly in love with a man who loves me just as much, and life has clicked into place with the satisfying symmetry that love engenders.
Of course, I’m still Jewish and still wildly, primitively superstitious, so I am repeating charms against the evil eye as I type, recalling my grandmother’s advice to avoid trumpeting one’s good fortune for fear of tempting evil spirits. But it’s hopeless: we are as smug and pleased with ourselves as canary-stuffed cats. Driving home from dinner with friends last week, another bout of self-congratulation ended with a protracted silence. We looked at each other. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked. “Yep,” said Marshall, “How is God going to punish us for feeling this good?” We shrugged, laughed, and tempted fate again.
So I’m going to use this online dating essay to convey some advice, but with a large grain of salt. The way I see it, there are two kinds of success: the outward kind that involves attaining or exceeding a measurable goal; and the inward kind, remaining rooted and whole while pursuing your desires, so that setbacks don’t throw you. Honestly, I can’t credit anything but blind luck for my present happiness. But I have definitely learned a few things from my online dating experience. They may not guarantee outward success for other seekers after love, but I think they will definitely enhance the odds of inward success.
Listen to your heart. I felt close to Marshall immediately. Listening to me talk about him, my friend said that he felt “familiar,” a word I at first resisted: after all, you can get used to something or someone without feeling much pleasure in the proximity. But the more I thought about it, the more I knew what she meant: propinquity, in the sense of kinship and affinity, a deep comfort with another person grounded in an acceptance that is close to unconditional.
You see, as soon as I met him, I felt a strong desire to be in Marshall’s company as much as possible. But I didn’t think a romance between us would work. I wanted him to be my brother or my new best friend, and despite his disappointment, he was willing. We began spending more and more time together. He was hurting, and I felt very sorry for causing that, but we both kept showing up anyway.
We began joking about helping each other find partners. Marshall sent me links to the onling dating profiles of women who seemed promising, and I visualized his happiness as I vetted them on his behalf. I fantasized that he would find the perfect woman who would magically be a perfect friend to me as well. Some kind of energy vortex began spiraling around us: almost at once, the online dating site began slotting people from each of our pasts into the other’s prospective matches; a little eerie, but somehow fitting. Marshall wasn’t as eager to vet my prospects, but he was willing to consult if I needed a man’s viewpoint. In relation to each other, we became our kindest, most generous selves, leading with our hearts.
From many of the online daters I’ve met, I’ve gotten the sense that when people don’t fit the profile of potential life-partners, that ends the relationship. But there are many kinds of attraction. I loved Marshall before I was in love with him. It makes sense to look at this enterprise as an occasion of serendipity, not just matchmaking.
Be aware of the odds. I was impressed by the obvious charm, attractions—and number—of eligible women online, and by how many emails Marshall had received from these delightful women in just a short time online. They almost all sounded interesting and amiable. I’d received a steady stream of emails, but compared to his volume, I was a piker. At first, I told myself it was a supply issue: common wisdom has it that there are many more women than men looking for love online. But for the site where we met, OKCupid, reports from both an advertising-related site and a social networking demographic site show that around 60 percent of visitors are men. Clearly, it was more about quality than quantity: a great many women saw in his profile the characteristics that interested me in the first place, and found themselves drawn to respond.
Of course, Marshall thought it was an incredibly potent but probably short-lived run of fantastic luck. “I can’t believe all these amazing women are interested in me,” he said. “It’s got to end soon. I better strike while the iron is hot.” We both figured he’d have a new girlfriend in a week or two, when he and I could move onto serene siblinghood.
People don’t necessarily know how to evaluate their online experience. Is it quantity of response? Quality? But I look at it this way: imagine yourself walking into a room filled with a hundred eligible suitors (just fill in your preferred gender and orientation). Do you really expect that more than a few would have the right combination of qualities to interest you in exploring a real relationship? The main job of the online love-seeker is to find a way to eliminate people who are truly unsuitable, not because they have the wrong hair-color or profession, but because—for example—you are seeking an intimacy that opens over and over into depth, and their profiles seek only a golf partner who also loves tennis.
In truth, it’s not failure when most of the connections you make online don’t pan out. To the contrary, it indicates success in clearing away what you don’t want to make room for that one in a million to find you.
Be real. Over the weeks that Marshall and I were exploring the best-frends option, he quickly met wonderful-sounding women who seemed like strong new-girlfriend prospects. I spent some time online too, but no one quite meshed, and some of the misses were hilarious: a man who sounded ideal on paper and in email ended the evening by getting down on all fours like a dog and wedging himself between our chairs, as a way to center himself after too much wine.
Meanwhile, Marshall and I took walks and ate meals and wove an endless ribbon of conversation, hard to stop at the end of a day, easy to pick up when next we met. One evening, I chopped vegetables as he sat on the other side of the counter, telling me about a friend he’d been supporting in her grief at the loss of a loved one. I was overcome with his kindness and generosity. I bet you’ve had an experience like the one that opened for me in that moment: reality shifted with an audible click, as when a camera-shutter closes; when it opened again, I was in love. I agonized overnight, worried that having hurt him once, it would be clumsy and selfish to confess my new feelings—and unfair to the other women somehow. But when I saw Marshall again, I had to tell him anyway.
What was different, I wondered aloud. “I stopped trying to impress you,” Marshall said, “and started being myself.” It was hard to hurt and be hurt, but now, we agree that it was worth the pain to arrive at the end of pretense and find each other. To come home.
This is probably the most common pitfall I’ve seen in online dating land. There is a powerful temptation to want each new person to like you, and to perform, however subtly, the role that desire seems to cast you in. The trouble with that strategy is that if it works, you’re left feeling false and uneasy; and if it fails, instead of seeing the encounter as just another interesting episode in the elimination process, you get to feel bad both about yourself and about your performance skills.
Know when to stop. A very nice man who’s been sharing his online dating adventures with me wrote about a woman who corrected his table-manners in a restaurant. That’s a good example of what many seekers call a “red flag,” and to my way of seeing things, his cue to say so: “You know, telling me to take my elbow off the table really made me stop and think; that suggests a relationship very different from the one I want.” People make clumsy mistakes sometimes, of course. Perhaps the woman’s reply would reveal an attractively ironic self-knowledge, bringing them closer: “You are so right! I’ve been nagging my teenager about this so much lately, I forgot for a second where I was.” But if she was defensive or self-righteous, that would be an important warning to heed.
During the weeks while Marshall and I were seeking online for alternative prospects, I realized that the enterprise sometimes calls for a curtness that conflicts with my idea of common courtesy. A man wrote to me online saying that I interested him, but he couldn’t really get to know me unless I completed some of the quizzes OKCupid offers as a way to judge compatibility. I explained that I didn’t really trust quizzes to fulfill that function, that I was more interested in how a man wrote about himself, or what it was like to talk. He pressed his point for a few messages, while at each iteration, I politely demurred that I wished him luck finding just what he sought with someone who liked quizzes as much as he did. His last message said that he had analyzed me and concluded that I wasn’t ready for a serious relationship, but he would keep me in mind.
I had to muster considerable self-restraint to refrain from answering that one, but by then, experience had taught me that withdrawal was the only sure way to extricate oneself.
Know when to start. Throughout my online dating experience, friends remarked that I was the only woman they knew who’d found it to be fun after some months (my entire experience amounted to about 9 months online over the course of a year). I think that some of the unease women may feel has to do with the way we are trained to wait for love to find us. Silence feels like a rejecting verdict. It was hard to leap over my training and start writing messages to men online. I don’t have an exact count, but all in all, I estimate that I initiated as many contacts as were initiated by men.
The trick was discovering how I wanted to do it, which is what made it fun. Instead of enumerating my virtues and fishing for dates, I wrote only to those men whose profiles disclosed something that interested me. If we had a book or a cause or a piece of music in common, I’d write about that. If I felt safe doing it, I’d send the man to my Website to learn more about me: I considered that an efficient way to eliminate the half who dropped away. And I always closed my messages with the wish that whether or not the man replied, he would find just what he was seeking soon. I figured that if I couldn’t offer a sincere wish for a person’s happiness, I shouldn’t contact him in the first place.
I can’t say with any certainty that taking my advice will attract life-changing love. But I’m very sure it will make the quest more enjoyable. Good luck! I’d love to hear how it goes for you, so feel free to write.
Marshall loves harmony singing, so we’ve been trading music. Even though I’m very happy, I think I’ll share a beautiful sad song by some of his favorite musicians, Girlyman: “Say Goodbye.”